PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- What was once a hill of scrap at Schnitzer Northeast scrap yard is now a mountain, clearly visible to motorists traveling along nearby Interstate 295.
A spike in the price of all things metal has ignited a boom in the scrap business. At Schnitzer Northeast, trucks line up every day loaded with junk cars, old water heaters, rusty equipment and odds and ends.
The volume at Schnitzer's yard on Somerset Street has tripled in the past two years, said David Roberge, a buyer for the company, which has 12 yards in New England.
"It's insane," he said. "Now everybody thinks they are a scrap dealer."
Metal prices have been driven up by increased demand in domestic and overseas markets combined with a shift in the scrap supply chain.
Junk cars sell for more than $220 a ton, up from $50 to $80 a ton a few years ago. The benchmark No. 1 heavy melt steel, a medium-grade steel, is now selling for about $500 a ton, up from less than $100 a ton in January 2003. Copper was selling for $3.75 cents a pound at the end of May, up 73 cents in just six months.
With those kinds of prices, it's no wonder that commercial scrap haulers are being joined by a growing legion of pickup truck owners who are getting into the junk business. They say they can earn hundreds of dollars a day.
Mike Siragusa of Lewiston said he quit his $40-an-hour job repairing industrial overhead bay doors so he could collect scrap. He makes $200 for each truckload and hauls two or three loads every day, he said.
Edward Carignan, a farmer from Buxton who sold off his dairy cows two years ago, is now collecting junk farm equipment that had been rusting away in his woods.
"There is money in the woods -- free money," he said.
For those who have been in the business for years, the newcomers can pose problems.
Before a scrap yard will accept a car, all of the fluids must be drained and the gas tank must be removed. Some people take shortcuts and pour the liquids down storm drains, said Alexander Strother of Anywhere Towing in Harrison, who frets that the state will crack down and require people like him to be licensed.
There are also reports, almost weekly, of metals being stolen from buildings, construction sites and power substations. Thieves have even been known to remove catalytic converters from cars in parking lots to get the platinum from them.
To cut down on thefts, the Legislature passed a law in its last session that requires that scrap yards keep records of every purchase greater than 100 pounds or $50, and to get photo identification of the sellers.
Buster Harris, manager of the Schnitzer yard in Portland, frequently gets calls from people whose cars have been stolen. When someone tries to sell a car that Harris suspects has been stolen, he stalls them while he calls police, he said.
While he spoke, a Westbrook man called to say his 18-year-old Buick had been stolen. One of the yard workers soon found it at the bottom of a small pile of cars that had come in earlier in the day.
Such events create a public relations problem for legitimate scrap haulers, said Strother, adding that he got into a fistfight last week with someone who called him a thief. In truth, he said, he and other scrap haulers are providing a great benefit.
"This is a green business," he said. "We help the environment by getting stuff out of people's yards."
Haulers work long hours to collect and deliver as much scrap as they can while the prices are still high, he said. But he knows the business can't go on forever at this pace. Eventually, he said, the wood and backyards of Maine will be empty of junk.
"The craze will end because the junk will end," he said.